Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, is both staggering in its beauty and delicate in its execution as it takes the Norse characters and stories we are so familiar with and shoves them to the background. Gone are the death-defying feats of Odin and nearly invisible is the quick-tempered Thor. In their stead, Gornichec highlights the overlooked witch Angrboda, Loki’s mate and the mother of monsters.
The Witch’s Heart opens with literal heartbreak and flames. Angrboda has been burned three times and her heart has been stabbed and removed for refusing to help Odin peer into the future. Yet still she lives, largely stripped of her powers and reduced to foraging for roots and snaring rabbits in a forest at the edge of the world. When a god—the frost giant trickster Loki—returns her gouged-out heart, Angrboda is distrustful. But as Loki continues to insinuate himself into Angrboda’s life, distrust turns first to affection and then to deep love. The witch and the god have three fate-possessed children together: the wolf Fenrir, the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr, and the half-dead girl and future queen of the dead Hel. Together with the help of the huntress Skadi, Angrboda attempts to shield her growing family from Odin’s searching eye, but the threat that her unusual family poses to the gods in Asgard can’t be ignored for long, and every step they take pushes them collectively towards a climactic conflict: Ragnarök.
Gornichec’s work is not a book of swashbuckling Viking adventure. Rather, it is a character study of a woman whose story has otherwise been relegated to but a few sentences of mythology. Ragnarök, the twilight of the gods, looms in Angrboda’s visions, but for the most part this is a story of small moments with large consequences. Gornichec lingers over scenes of domesticity—over Skadi helping Angrboda build her furniture, over the feelings of resentment that accompany your child liking their other parent more than they like you, over the simple wonder and occasional annoyance of sharing a bed with someone you love. The Witch’s Heart invites us to swim in these details, lulling us with descriptions of a family dynamic that we know can’t possibly last.
And this is where the beauty of Gornichec’s work lives. She never denies the tragedy that is inevitable in any story of Norse mythology. Angrboda, like all the others, is bound by fate and her rebellions must be within its confines. For some readers, the small scale of Gornichec’s novel and the focus on the inevitability of Ragnarök might be frustrating. After all, this story is not what we have been told to expect of tales of Vikings and witches. But to those readers, Gornichec offers this: instead of fighting the end, focus on the details and savor the life—and the change—that can be built in the cracks that fate has neglected.